Sunday, January 8, 2012

Some Notes on Household Baptisms

One of the common criteria used in debates over who should be baptized (that is, only professing believers, or also their children) is the accounts of household baptisms in the New Testament. (See my previous post.) One's "household" (Greek oikos) referred generally to their dependent family in an immediate and certain sense, but also possibly any other voluntary bondservants pledged to their care. There are five explicit household baptisms mentioned: that of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), Lydia (16:15), the Philippian jailer (16:31-34), Crispus (18:8 with 1 Cor. 1:14), and Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16). Presumably the household of Gaius was also baptized, because his name is included between the two others whose households were baptized (1 Cor. 1:14-16).

Baptists try to argue that everyone who was in the household believed and professed faith, therefore giving only a pattern of "believers-only baptism" (called credobaptism, baptism upon professing a creed or statement of faith). Reformed/Presbyterian and Methodist folks use these accounts to say that the household head's faith reckoned the whole household under covenant membership, so the whole family was baptized regardless of whether or not they believed. This would include the baptism of any infants or young children if present (paedobaptism). Who's right?

My answer is: Probably no one (or everyone). The household accounts are pretty much inconclusive.

First, a few observations for paedobaptists:

1. The families of Cornelius, Crispus, and Stephanas were all converted believers. The Holy Spirit fell on the entire household of Cornelius while Peter was preaching the gospel of faith in Christ, after which they were baptized (Acts 10:42-48). Peter remarks that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to them after belief (I take this to mean that there were special manifestations of the Spirit's presence, in this case speaking in other languages), and the rest of the believing Jews at Jerusalem acknowledged that these Gentiles were recipients of "repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:17-18). Crispus "believed in the Lord, together with his entire household" (Acts 18:8). And it is recorded that "the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints" (1 Cor. 16:15). At the very least, all of these three households were believers.

2. The jailer's family also probably all repented and believed in the Lord Jesus upon hearing the gospel. For starters, their salvation was promised by Paul and Silas (Acts 16:31). Unless we say that they were saved apart from faith (which is heretical), they all must have trusted Christ individually. Second, they all heard "the word of the Lord" (v. 32). Third, they too rejoiced with their father/husband over this new faith (v. 34). It would seem odd to say that only the jailer believed, and yet all of them rejoiced "that he had believed in God" (ESV). The natural conclusion would be that all of them rejoiced and believed. The ESV makes it clear that the rendering of pisteuo is singular: "And he rejoiced with his entire household that he had believed in God."[1] This makes it seem like only he believed, and no one else did. Taken apart from the promise in verse 31, this could be rightly concluded from the text. However, the NASB renders it "he . . . rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household," and the NIV has "he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God--he and his whole household." Yes, only the jailer's faith is explicitly mentioned, and the verb is singular. But the fact that he was "with his whole household" probably does not indictate mere proximity, but that his family were together with him in faith, just as Paul promised him. Therefore it is likely (but not certain) all were baptized as confessing believers.

And now, listen up, credobaptists:

3. As Bryan Chapell points out (and I think Gregg Strawbridge somewhere else) of every Gentile baptism account recorded in the Bible, "every person identified as having a household present at his or her conversion also had the entire household baptized."[2] Sure, some baptisms occur where we simply don't know whether or not other family members were present or were baptized (as with the Jews in Jerusalem at Pentecost in Acts 2, or the Samaritans in Acts 8). But whenever a household is present, all are baptized.

4. In two cases, we are told that the whole household is baptized, even when only the household head is explicitly mentioned as having believed (Lydia and the jailer). "And after [Lydia] was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.' And she prevailed upon us" (Acts 16:15). Only Lydia is said to believe, and her plea was not upon her household's faith, but hers alone. While the entire household may have been personally converted, this cannot be demonstrated from the text. In like manner, Luke only chooses to record the faith of the jailer, even though the whole household was baptized (16:32-34).

5. Salvation is pledged foremost to the household head, and it's upon his faith that the assurance of salvation is given to the rest of the family. The angel told Cornelius, "[Peter] will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and your household" (11:14). The jailer also was told, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (16:31). Chapell argues that "Paul's words do not mean that the rest of the household would automatically express genuine saving faith in Christ, but his presumption was that the faith of the head of the household would govern the life and faith patterns of the rest of the man's family. As a result, the jailer's entire household was baptized that night (v. 33)."[3] The faith of the family leader set in place the relational means of grace through which the family would embrace the gospel and believe.

6. Even if all the household baptisms were examples of household repentance and belief, they are never treated as sole individuals before the Lord or within the church, but as members of so-and-so's family. "You [Cornelius] and your household" (11:14); "[Lydia} . . . and her household" (16:15); "[the jailer] and all his family" (16:33); "Crispus . . . together with his entire household" (18:8); "the household of Stephanas" (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15); "the household of Onesiphorus" (2 Tim. 1:16; 4:19). If Baptists want to demonstrate that salvation and church membership are based only upon the individual "competency of the soul," and that everyone enters the New Covenant church by his or her own faith as an individual apart from family connections (that is, apart from the flesh), then they have to recognize that even if they were believers, their identity was as the family under a believing head.

7. In the jailer's household, since only the jailer is recorded as having believed, yet he was promised the salvation of his entire family through trust in the Lord Jesus, it is possible that the family members didn't really understand the gospel that night. They might have been saved at some point in the future.

Now for everybody:

8. The household baptisms of Lydia and the jailer are pretty inconclusive. We cannot say with any certainty about the faith of the household members, since no explicit descriptions of their conversions are recorded. (However, I think there are legitimate grounds to believe the jailer's house was converted, as mentioned above.) The texts don't say anything either way.

9. Just as paedobaptists cannot be certain there were infants or young children in these households to be baptized prior to a personal profession of faith, neither can credobaptists prove there weren't infants or young children. Nothing is said about the makeup of these households. Yes, the gospel of Christ was preached to all in the houses of Cornelius and the jailer, but that does not, as some Baptists claim, show that no infants or children were present, who could not intelligibly be spoken to about Christ. Do Baptists not speak about God to their young children, even infants? Of course they do.

10. Even if every household baptism in fact involved the personal repentance of every family member then and there, only after which were they baptized to signify their membership in the New Covenant, that really doesn't mean the household accounts teach baptism is only for professing believers. Both converts from Judaism and from paganism were baptized because they were leaving behind their old religious beliefs and entering the realm of faith in and discipleship after Jesus Christ for the first time. For everybody being baptized in the book of Acts, their baptism stood as a watershed moment in which they were leaving behind the old order and entering the Christian faith for the first time. There is simply no other way for anybody to have been baptized at that time. What matters is whether or not second-generation Christians, those born within a Christ-confessing family at a later time, were baptized prior to faith. The Bible doesn't record that believers had later generations of children baptized in infancy, nor do we see anywhere that believers' children had to wait and make a profession of faith before being baptized and admitted to the church. Even if every baptism in the Bible was a case of "believer's baptism," this doesn't tell us what those believers did with their children reared in the church and outside of Judaism or Greek polytheism.

11. We don't know whether the household accounts--whether as examples of entire family conversions or of covenantal household polity--were meant to be commonplace, showing what generally or often occurred, or if they were exceptional events of special note. Was it normal for a household to all believe at once, or was it noteworthy? There is a lot of debate over whether or not the book of Acts is simply descriptive of selected historical events in the early church, or if it was meant to be prescriptive, setting normative standards for the life of the church, at least by implication.[4]

So the household baptismal accounts really don't settle anything for either side. I think the only thing they positively show is that sometimes whole households did believe, more frequently that whole households were baptized when the family head believed, that households are reckoned as whole units with faith-heads who bring the gospel to the home, and that no one is saved and receives the Holy Spirit apart from belief in Jesus. I do think all these, taken together, slightly favor the paedobaptist position overall. But to say that these accounts "prove" one position or another is an erroneous stretch.
[1] Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 18-19.
[2] Ibid, 17.
[3] Ibid, 18.
[4] See, for example, chapter 6, "Acts: The Question of Historical Precedent" in Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 107-125.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Ben Witherington III's book, though he holds to paedo-baptism, shows the ambiguity of the evidence.

Sacramentalism in the church was arguably devastating over the centuries.  Much nominalism, which I think is an ongoing problem in churches that emphasize the sacramental(?).

Along came the Anabaptists who were disobedient to both the church and state by not submitting to infant baptism. Insisting that there should be a confession of faith before one is baptized, that indeed there is to be a believing church submitting to church discipline and practice. Of course this directly challenged the union of church and state. As well as calling the church back to New Testament order.

Passages which seem to indicate baptismal regeneration (e.g., "as many as have been baptized into Christ, have clothed themselves with Christ."), might necessarily be qualified by other passages which make it clear that salvation is by faith. Though repentance and baptism are added in at least one place (Acts 2).

Prayers for your new arrival from here.